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Posts Tagged ‘banking’

Too tough or not tough enough? Developing Basel III banking rules

Under the auspices of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), banks around the world are working their way towards implementing tougher capital requirements. These tougher rules, known as ‘Basel III’, are due to come fully into operation by 2019.

This third version of international banking rules was agreed after the financial crisis of 2008, when many banks were so undercapitalised that they could not withstand the dramatic decline in the value of many of their assets and a withdrawal of funds.

Basel III requires banks to have much more capital, especially common equity capital. The point about equity (shares) is that it’s a liability that does not have to be repaid. If people hold bank shares, the bank does not have to repay them and does not even have to pay any dividends. In other words, the money raised by issuing shares carries no obligation on the part of the bank and can thus provide a buffer against large-scale withdrawal of funds.

Under Basel III, banks have to maintain sufficiently large ‘capital-adequacy ratios’. As Essentials of Economics (7th edition) explains:

Capital adequacy is a measure of a bank’s capital relative to its assets, where the assets are weighted according to the degree of risk. The more risky the assets, the greater the amount of capital that will be required.

A measure of capital adequacy is given by the capital adequacy ratio (CAR). This is given by the following formula:

Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) capital includes bank reserves (from retained profits) and ordinary share capital (equities), where dividends to shareholders vary with the amount of profit the bank makes… Additional Tier 1 (AT1) capital consists largely of preference shares. These pay a fixed dividend (like company bonds), but although preference shareholders have a prior claim over ordinary shareholders on the company’s (i.e. the bank’s) profits, dividends need not be paid in times of loss.

Tier 2 capital is subordinated debt with a maturity greater than 5 years. Subordinated debt holders only have a claim on a company (a bank) after the claims of all other bondholders have been met.

Risk-weighted assets are the total value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. Under the Basel III accord, cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Interbank lending between the major banks has a risk factor of 0.2 and is thus included at only 20 per cent of its value; residential mortgages under 60% of the value of the property have a risk factor of 0.35; personal loans, credit-card debt and overdrafts have a risk factor of 1; loans to companies carry a risk factor of 0.2, 0.5, 1 or 1.5, depending on the credit rating of the company. Thus the greater the average risk factor of a bank’s assets, the greater will be the value of its risk weighted assets, and the lower will be its CAR.

Basel III gives minimum capital requirements that are higher than under its predecessor, Basel II. Thus, by 2019, banks must have a common equity capital to risk-weighted assets of at least 4.5% and a Tier 1 ratio of at least 6.0%. The overall CAR should be at least 8%. In addition, the phased introduction of a ‘capital conservation buffer’ from 2016 will raise the overall CAR to at least 10.5 per cent.

Over the past few years, banks have increased their capital cushions significantly and many have exceeded the Basel III requirements, even for 2019.

But the Basel Committee has been reconsidering the calculation of risk-weighted assets. Because of the complexity of banks’ asset structures, which tend to vary significantly from country to country, it is difficult to ensure that banks’ are meeting the Basel III requirements. Under proposed amendments to Basel III (which some commentators have dubbed ‘Basel IV’), banks would have to compare their own calculations with a ‘standardised’ model. Their own calculations of risk-based assets would then not be allowed to be lower than 60–90% (known as ‘the output floor’) of the standardised approach.

While, on the surface, this may seem reasonable, European banks have claimed that this would penalise them, as some of their assets are less risky than the equivalent assets in other countries. For example, Germany has argued that mortgage defaults have been rare and thus German mortgage debt should be given a lower weighting than US mortgage debt, where defaults have been more common. If all assets were assessed according to the output floor, several banks, especially in Europe, would be judged to be undercapitalised. As The Economist article states:

Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate that global, non-American banks could see risk-weighted assets rise by an average of 18–30%, depending on the level of the output floor. Extra capital of €250bn–410bn could be needed, a tall order when earnings are thin and investors wary. The committee’s reviews of operational and market risks would add even more.

This question of an output floor was a sticking point at the Basel Committee meeting in Santiago, which ended on 30 November. Although some progress was made about agreeing to rules on risk weighting that could be applied globally, a final agreement will have to wait until the next meeting, in January – at the earliest.

Basel bust-up: A showdown looms over bank-capital rules The Economist (26/11/16)
Bank regulators fail to agree on new rules Manila Standard (2/12/16)
Bank chief Claudio Borio urges regulators to ‘stay strong’ Weekend Australian, Michael Bennet (29/11/16)
Final Basel III rules meet resistance from Europe The Straits Times (2/12/16)
This Is the Absolutely Worst Time to Weaken Global Bank Rules American Banker, Mayra Rodriguez Valladares (2/12/16)
New Basel banking rules’ impact on European economy Financial Times, Frédéric Oudéa (28/12/16)
Banks like RBS still look risky, but getting too tough could cause greater problems The Conversation, Alan Shipman (1/12/16)

BIS publications
International banking supervisory community meets to discuss the regulatory framework BIS Press Release (1/12/16)
Basel III: international regulatory framework for banks Bank for International Settlements
Basel III phase-in arrangements Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, BIS
Basel Committee on Banking Supervision reforms – Basel III, Summary Table Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, BIS


  1. Why do reserves in banks have a zero weighting in terms of risk-based assets?
  2. What items have a 100% weighting? Explain why.
  3. Examine the table, Basel III phase-in arrangements, and explain each of the terms.
  4. If banks are forced to operate with a higher capital adequacy ratio, what is this likely to do to bank lending? Explain. How are funding costs relevant to your answer?
  5. Explain each of the items in the Basel III capital-adequacy requirements shown in the chart above.
  6. What is the American case for imposing an output floor?
  7. What is the European banks’ case for using their own risk weighting?
  8. Why is it proposed that larger ‘systemically important banks’ (SIBs) should have an additional capital requirement?
  9. How does the balance of assets of American banks differ from that of European banks?
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Don’t bank on Italy’s economy

The Brexit vote has caused shockwaves throughout European economies. But there is a potentially larger economic and political problem facing the EU and the eurozone more specifically. And that is the state of the Italian banking system and the Italian economy.

Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone after Germany and France. Any serious economic weaknesses could have profound consequences for the rest of the eurozone and beyond.

At 135% of GDP, Italy’s public-sector debt is one the highest in the world; its banks are undercapitalised with a high proportion of bad debt; and it is still struggling to recover from the crisis of 2008–9. The Economist article elaborates:

The adult employment rate is lower than in any EU country bar Greece. The economy has been moribund for years, suffocated by over-regulation and feeble productivity. Amid stagnation and deflation, Italy’s banks are in deep trouble, burdened by some €360 billion of souring loans, the equivalent of a fifth of the country’s GDP. Collectively they have provisioned for only 45% of that amount. At best, Italy’s weak banks will throttle the country’s growth; at worst, some will go bust.

Since 2007, the economy has shrunk by 10%. And potential output has fallen too, as firms have closed. Unemployment is over 11%, with youth unemployment around 40%.

Things seem to be coming to a head. As confidence in the Italian banking system plummets, the Italian government would like to bail out the banks to try to restore confidence and encourage deposits and lending. But under new eurozone rules designed to protect taxpayers, it requires that the first line of support should be from bondholders. Such support is known as a ‘bail-in’.

If bondholders were large institutional investors, this might not be such a problem, but a significant proportion of bank bonds in Italy are held by small investors, encouraged to do so by tax relief. Bailing in the banks by requiring bondholders to bear significant losses in the value of their bonds could undermine the savings of many Italians and cause them severe hardship, especially those who had saved for their retirement.

So what is the solution? Italian banks need recapitalising to restore confidence and prevent a more serious crisis. However, there is limited scope for bailing in, unless small investors can be protected. And eurozone rules provide little scope for government funding for the banks. These rules should be relaxed under extreme circumstances. At the same time, policy needs to focus on making Italian banking more efficient.

Meanwhile, the IMF is forecasting that Italian economic growth will be less than 1% this year and little better in 2017. Part of the problem, claims the IMF, is the Brexit vote. This has heightened financial market volatility and increasead the risks for Italy with its fragile banking system. But the problems of the Italian economy run deeper and will require various supply-side policies to tackle low productivity, corruption, public-sector inefficiency and a financial system not fit for purpose. What the mix of these policies should be – whether market based or interventionist – is not just a question of effectiveness, but of political viability and democratic support.

The Italian Job The Economist (9/7/16)
IMF warns Italy of two-decade-long recessionThe Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/7/16)
Italy economy: IMF says country has ‘two lost decades’ of growth BBC News (12/7/16)
What’s the problem with Italian banks? BBC News, Andrew Walker (10/7/16)
Why Italy’s banking crisis will shake the eurozone to its core The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (16/8/16)
If You Thought Brexit Was Bad Wait Until The Italian Banks All Go Bust Forbes, Tim Worstall (17/7/16)
In the euro zone’s latest crisis, Italy is torn between saving the banks or saving its people Quartz, Cassie Werber (13/7/16)
Why Italy could be the next European country to face an economic crisis Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/16)
Forget Brexit, Quitaly is Europe’s next worry The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/7/16)

Italy IMF Country Report No. 16/222 (July 2016)

Economic Outlook OECD (June 2016) (select ‘By country’ from the left-hand panel and then choose ‘Italy’ from the pull-down menu and choose appropriate time series)


  1. Can changes in aggregate demand have supply-side consequences? Explain.
  2. Explain why there may be a downward spiral of asset sales by banks.
  3. How might the principle of bail-ins for undercapitalised Italian banks be pursued without being at the expense of the small saver?
  4. What lessons are there from Japan’s ‘three arrows’ for Italy? Does being in the eurozone constrain Italy’s ability to adopt any or all of these three categories of policy?
  5. Why may the Brexit vote have more serious consequences for Italy than many other European economies?
  6. Find out what reforms have already been adopted or are being pursued by the Italian government. How successful are they likely to be in increasing Italian growth and productivity?
  7. What external factors are currently (a) favourable, (b) unfavourable to improving Italian growth and productivity?
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Jim Slater: the legacy

Jim Slater, who has just died at the age of 86, was a tycoon of the 1970s, probably unknown to most reader of this blog. But his legacy lives on and many will question whether the actions of the banking sector and big business today is a reflection of the lessons that were not learnt 40 years ago.

Slater was a businessman: perhaps the businessman in the 1970s, building up a company that in today’s money and the height of its success, would have been worth billions. Buying and selling companies, asset stripping and investing created Slater Walker, which shot to success and then crumbled to failure, taking with it a bailout from the Bank of England of £110 million. You might look at that figure and compare it with the bail outs of more recent times and think – peanuts. But think about how prices have changed and convert £110 million into today’s money and that’s a hefty bail out. A key question is whether the willingness of the government and Bank of England to bail out key banks and financial sector businesses has encouraged the irresponsible lending that led to the credit crunch. Was there a moral hazard? Had Slater Walker been left to fail, would the world look a slightly different place?

Perhaps a little extreme, but I wonder, if we were to look back over the past 50 to 60 years, whether we would find other cases of key businesses being bailed out, which set a precedent for other companies to grow, without necessarily taking full responsibility for it. Jim Slater will certainly leave a legacy behind him .

Jim Slater and the warning from the 1970s that we ignored BBC News, Jonty Bloom (20/11/15)


  1. What is meant by asset stripping?
  2. If a company like Slater Walker had not been bailed out, do you think the economy would have suffered?
  3. If Slater Walker had been left to fail, would that have changed the business model of some of our largest banks and reduced the chance of a financial crisis 40 years later?
  4. Do you think the concept of moral hazard is relevant here?
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Job losses and labour mobility

Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.

The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.

And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.

One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.

What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.

So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.

As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.

Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)

Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)

Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)


  1. Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
  2. What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
  3. What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
  4. Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
  5. What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
  6. What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?
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The capital adequacy of UK banks

The Prudential Regulation Authority is the new UK authority in charge of banking regulation and is part of the Bank of England. In a report published on 20/6/13, the PRA found that UK banks had a capital shortfall of £27.1 billion (see Chart 1 below for details) if they were to meet the 7% common equity tier 1 (CET1) ratio: one of the capital adequacy ratios (CARs) specified under the Basel III rules (see Rebuilding UK banks: not easy to do and Chart 2 below).

CET1 includes bank reserves and ordinary share capital (‘equities’). To derive the CET1 ratio, CET1 is expressed as a percentage of risk-weighted assets. As Economics for Business (6th ed) page 467 states:

Risk-weighted assets are the total value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. …Cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Inter-bank lending between the major banks has a risk factor of 0.2 and is thus included at only 20 per cent of its value; residential mortgages have a risk factor of 0.35; personal loans, credit-card debt and overdrafts have a risk factor of 1; loans to companies carry a risk factor of 0.2, 0.5, 1 or 1.5, depending on the credit rating of the company. Thus the greater the average risk factor of a bank’s assets, the greater will be the value of its risk weighted assets, and the lower will be its CAR.

The data published by the PRA, based on end-2012 figures, show that the RBS group is responsible for around 50% of the capital shortfall, the Lloyds Banking Group around 32%, Barclays around 11%, the Co-operative around 5.5% and Nationwide the remaining 1.5%. HSBC, Santander and Standard Chartered met the 7% requirement. The PRA found that banks already were taking measures to raise £13.7bn, but this still leaves them requiring an additional £13.4 for current levels of lending.

So what can the banks do? They must either raise additional capital (the numerator in the CAR) or reduce their risk-weighted assets (the denominator). Banks hope to be able to raise additional capital. For example, Lloyds is planning to sell government securities and US mortgage-backed securities and hopes to have a CET1 ratio of around 10% by the end of 2013. Generally, the banks aim to raise the required level of capital through income generation, the sale of assets and restructuring, rather than from issuing new shares.

What both the Bank of England and the government hope is that banks do not respond by reducing lending. While that might enable them to meet the 7% ratio, it would have an undesirable dampening effect on the economy – just at a time when it is hoped that the economy is starting to recover. As Robert Peston states:

I understand that both Barclays and Nationwide feel a bit miffed about being forced to hit this tough so-called leverage ratio at this juncture, because they are rare in that they have been supporting economic recovery by increasing their net lending.

They now feel they are being penalised for doing what the government wants. So I would expect there to be something of a spat between government and regulators about all this.

Factbox – Capital shortfalls for five UK banks, mutuals Standard Chartered News (20/6/13)
UK banks ordered to plug £27.1bn capital shortfall The Guardian, Jill Treanor (20/6/13)
Barclays, Co-op, Nationwide, RBS and Lloyds responsible for higher-than-expected capital shortfall of £27.1bn The Telegraph, Harry Wilson (20/6/13)
UK banks need to plug £27bn capital hole, says PRA BBC News (20/6/13)
Barclays and Nationwide forced to strengthen BBC News, Robert Peston (20/6/13)
Five Banks Must Raise $21 Billion in Fresh Capital: BOE Bloomberg, Ben Moshinsky (20/6/13)
Will Nationwide be forced to become a bank? BBC News, Robert Peston (4/7/13)

PRA news release and data
Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) completes capital shortfall exercise with major UK banks and building societies Bank of England: Prudential Regulation Authority (20/6/13)


  1. Explain what are meant by the various Basel III capital adequacy requirements
  2. What are the banks which were identified as having a capital shortfall doing about it?
  3. Would it be desirable for banks to issue additional shares? Would this make the banks more secure?
  4. Would the raising of additional capital allow additional credit creation to take place? Explain.
  5. What other constraints are there on bank lending?
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Record Low for ECB

Interest rates have, for some years, been the main tool of monetary policy and of steering the macroeconomy. Across the world interest rates were lowered, in many cases to record lows, as a means of stimulating economic growth. Interest rates in the UK have been at 0.5% since March 2009 and on 2nd May 2013, the ECB matched this low rate, having cut its main interest rate from 0.75%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Low interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing for both firms and consumers and this in turn encourages investment and can boost consumer expenditure. After all, when you borrow money, you do it to spend! Lower interest rates will also reduce the return on savings, again encouraging spending and for those on variable rate mortgages, mortgage payments will fall, increasing disposable income. However, these above effects are dependent on the banks passing the ECB’s main interest rate on its customers and this is by no means guaranteed.

Following the cut in interest rates, the euro exchange rate fell almost 2 cents against the dollar.

Interest rates in the eurozone have been at 0.75%, but a 0.25 point cut was widely expected, with the ongoing debt crisis in the Eurozone continuing to adversely affect growth and confidence. A lack of trust between banks has also contributed to a lack of lending, especially to small and medium sized enterprises. The ECB has injected money into financial institutions with the aim of stimulating lending, but in many cases, banks have simply placed this extra money back with the ECB, rather than lending it to other banks or customers. The fear is that those they lend to will be unable to repay the money. In response to this, there have been suggestions of interest rates becoming negative – that is, if banks want to hold their money with the ECB they will be charged to do it. Again, the idea is to encourage banks to lend their money instead.

Small and medium sized businesses have been described as the engine of growth, but it is these businesses who have been the least able to obtain finance. Without it, they have been unable to grow and this has held back the economic recovery. Indeed, GDP in the Eurozone has now fallen for five consecutive quarters, thus prompting the latest interest rate cut. A key question, however, will be how effective this quarter of a percent cut will be. If banks were unwilling to lend and firms unwilling to invest at 0.75%, will they be more inclined at 0.5%? The change is small and many suggest that it is not enough to make much of a difference. David Brown of New View Economics said:

The ECB rate cut is no surprise as it was well flagged by Draghi at last month’s meeting. Is it enough? No. The marginal effect of the cut is very limited, but at least it should have some symbolic rallying effect on economic confidence.

This was supported by Howard Archer at HIS Global Insight, who added:

Admittedly, it is unlikely that the trimming of interest rates from 0.75% to 0.5% will have a major growth impact, especially given fragmented credit markets, but any potential help to the eurozone economy in its current state is worthwhile.

Inflation in the eurozone is only at 1.2%, which is significantly below the ceiling of 2%, so this did give the ECB scope for the rate to be cut. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) After all, when interest rates fall, the idea is to boost aggregate demand, but with this, inflation can emerge. Mr Draghi said ‘we will monitor very closely all incoming information, and assess any impact on the outlook for price stability’. The primary objective of the ECB is the control of inflation and so had inflation been somewhat higher, we may have seen a different decision by the ECB. However, even then, 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth is hard to ignore.

So, if these lower interest rates have little effect on stimulating an economic recovery, what about a movement away from austerity? Many have been calling for stimulus in the economy, arguing that the continuing austerity measures are stifling growth. The European Council President urged governments to promote growth and job creation. Referring to this, he said:

Taking these measures is more urgent than anything … After three years of firefights, patience with austerity is wearing understandably thin.

However, Mr. Draghi urged for policymakers to stick with austerity and continue to focus on bringing debt levels down, while finding other ways to stimulate growth, including structural reform. The impact of this latest rate cut will certainly take time to filter through the economy and will very much depend on whether the 0.5% interest rate is passed on to customers, especially small businesses. Confidence and trust within the financial sector is therefore key and it might be that until this emerges, the eurozone itself is unlikely to emerge from its recession.

ECB ready to enter unchartered waters as bank cuts interest rate to fresh low of 0.5pc The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/5/13)
Draghi urges Eurozone governments to stay the course on austerity Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut to a record low of 0.5% The Guardian, Heather Stewart (2/5/13)
ECB’s Draghi ‘ready to act if needed’ BBC News (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut again as ECB matches Bank of England Independent, Russell Lynch (3/5/13)
Margio Draghi urges no let-up in austerity reforms after Eurozone rate cut – as it happened The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate to record-low 0.5% in desperate measure to drag Eurozone out of recession Mail Online, Simon Tomlinson and Hugo Duncan (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rates, open to further action Reuters, Michael Shields (2/5/13)
Eurozone loosens up austerity, slowly Wall Street Journal (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate, not enough to pull the region out of recession The Economic Times of India (2/5/13)
Euro steady ahead of ECB interest rate announcement Wall Street Journal, Clare Connaghan (2/5/13)
European Central Bank (ECB) cuts interest rates BBC News (2/5/13)
All eyes on ECB as markets expect rate cut Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)


  1. How is a recession defined?
  2. Using an aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram, illustrate and explain the impact that this cut in interest rates should have.
  3. On which factors will the effectiveness of the cut in interest rates depend?
  4. Using the interest rate and exchange rate transmission mechanisms to help you, show the impact of interest rates on the various components of aggregate demand and thus on national output.
  5. What would be the potential impact of a negative interest rate?
  6. Why did the low inflation rate give the ECB scope to cut interest rates?
  7. What are the arguments for and against austerity measures in the Eurozone, given the 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth?
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A lack of competition in banking

Over the past five years the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has been closely studying the market for personal bank accounts in the UK. Last week, it announced its latest findings and the evidence seems to suggest that there remains a lack of competition in the market.

On the positive side, it reports that there has been a large fall in unarranged overdraft fees. However, despite this, according to the OFT banks still make on average £139 per year from every active current account. Furthermore, concentration has increased with the four largest banks (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and RBS) now accounting for 85% of the market and there has been little new entry. It appears that one of the key factors in enabling these main players to dominate the market and reap high profits is a lack of consumer switching behaviour. According to the OFT chief executive, Clive Maxwell:

Customers still find it difficult to assess which account offers the best deal and lack confidence that they can switch accounts easily. This prevents them from driving effective competition between providers.

Despite all these concerns, the OFT declined to refer the market to the Competition Commission for a more in-depth investigation and potential remedial action. Instead, the OFT will look at the market again in 2015. Richard Lloyd, the executive director at the consumer organisation Which?, was disappointed with this decision and was quoted in the The Guardian as saying:

Everyone – consumers, the government, leading bankers and now the OFT – seems to agree that big change is needed in banking, and that much greater competition on the high street is urgently needed to make the banks work for customers, not bankers.

Whilst at least for the moment, the Competition Commission will not get the chance to take action, there are still several reforms underway that may affect competition in the market. First, the OFT is increasing pressure on banks to allow consumers to have portable account numbers that they can take with them if they switch provider. Second, as a result of the Independent Commission’s review, banks will be required to switch a customer’s account in one week, rather than the average of 18 days it currently takes, and this process will become much more seamless. Finally, Lloyds has agreed to sell over 600 branches to the Co-op in order to meet the European Commission’s requirements following the government bail-out of the bank in 2008. This will increase the Co-op’s share of the current account market to 7%. It will be interesting to see how these reforms affect the market. If there is not substantial evidence of increased competition then the market is likely to face more scrutiny from the competition authorities.

Bank accounts: OFT says significant change needed BBC (25/01/13)
OFT: banks failing consumers The Economic Voice (25/01/13)
Let’s make bank accounts as easy to switch as mobiles The Telegraph, Andrew Oxlade (28/01/13)
OFT chief calls for more competitive banking sector The Telegraph, Denise Roland (30/01/13)


  1. What type of market structure best fits the banking industry?
  2. What are the barriers to entry in this market?
  3. What are the key features of the market that reduce consumer switching behaviour?
  4. Do you think most people are more likely to switch their mobile phone or current account provider? Explain.
  5. Why does limited consumer switching reduce the intensity of competition?
  6. Do you think the current reforms will result in a substantial increase in competition?
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Oligopolies galore

Oligopoly: it’s a complex market structure and although closer to the monopoly end of the ‘Market Structure Spectrum’, it can still be a highly competitive market. The characteristics are well-documented and key to the degree of competition within any oligopoly is the number of competitors and extent to which there are barriers to entry.

The greater the barriers and the fewer the competitors the greater the power the established firms have. This can then spell trouble for pricing and hence for consumers. The following articles are just some examples of the oligopolies that exist around the world and some of the benefits and problems that accompany them.

Oligopoly of PSU oil cos reason for high ATF prices The Indian Express, Smita Aggarwal (30/4/12)
Group energy buying hits the UK headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe(18/1/11)
German cartel office probes petrol companies on pricing Fox Business (4/4/12)
Gov’t unveils steps to lower fuel prices Yonhap News (19/4/12)
How big banks threaten our economy Wall Street Journal, Warren Stephens (29/4/12)
UK Governance: Call for Whitehall to simplify the landscape for SME suppliers to win more government contracts The Information Daily (26/4/12)

Other blogs
Pumping up the price: fuel cartels in Germany April 2012
Energy profit margins up by over 700% October 2011
Every basket helps October 2011
The art of oligopoly December 2010


  1. What are the assumptions of an oligopolistic market structure?
  2. Consider (a) the energy sector and (b) the banking sector. To what extent does each market conform with the assumptions of an oligopoly?
  3. In the ‘Spend Matters’ article, a group of people in a Lincolnshire village formed a local buying consortium to negotiate deals for heating oil. What could we refer to this as?
  4. To what extent is an oligopoly in the public interest?
  5. Explain how barriers to entry in oligopolies affect the competitiveness and efficiency of a market.
  6. Illustrate how an oligopolistic market structure can fix prices and hence exploit consumers.
  7. How have the actions of the big oil companies in both the UK and Germany been against independent retailers and the consumer interest?
  8. What action can governments take to break up oligopolies? Will it always be effective?
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Swiss banking

If you are lucky enough to have piles of money earning interest in a bank account, one thing you don’t want to be doing is facing the dreaded tax bill on the interest earned. It is for this reason that many wealthy people put their savings into bank accounts in Switzerland and other countries with strict secrecy laws. Countries, such as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Liberia and the Principality of Monaco have previously had laws in place to prevent the effective exchange of information. This had meant that you could keep your money in an account there and the UK authorities would be unable to obtain any information for their tax records.

However, as part of an ongoing OECD initiative against harmful tax practices, more and more countries have been opening up to the exchange of information. In recent developments, Switzerland and the UK have signed an agreement, which will see them begin to negotiate on improving information exchange. In particular, the UK will be looking at the possibility of the Swiss authorities imposing a tax on any interest earned in their accounts by UK residents. This tax would be on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs. One concern, however, with this attempted crack down on tax evasion is that ‘innocent’ taxpayers could be the ones to suffer.

The following articles consider this recent development. It is also a good idea to look at the following link, which takes you to the OECD to view some recent agreements between the UK and other countries with regard to tax policy and the exchange of information. (The OECD)

UK in talks over taxing Britons’ Swiss bank accounts BBC News (26/10/10)
Doubts on plans to tackle tax evasion Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (21/10/10)
HMRC letters target taxpayers with Swiss bank accounts BBC News (25/10/10)
Spending Review: Can the taxman fix the system? BBC News, Kevin Peachey (22/10/10)
Britain, Switzerland agree to begin tax talks AFP (26/10/10)
Treasury to get £1 billion windfall in Swiss deal over secret bank accounts Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/10/10)
Swiss to help UK tax secret accounts Reuters (25/10/10)

The OECD’s Project on Hamful Tax Practices, 2006 Update on Progress in Member Countries The OECD, Centre for Tax Policy and Administration 2006
A Progress Report on the Jurisdictions surveyed by the OECD global forum in implementing the internationally agreed tax standard The OECD, Centre for Tax Policy and Administration (19/10/10)


  1. Is there a difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion?
  2. If there is crack down on tax evasion, what might be the impact on higher earners? How could this potential policy change adversely affect the performance of the UK economy?
  3. If tax evasion is reduced, what are the likely positive effects on everyday households?
  4. Is clamping down on tax evasion cost effective?
  5. What might be the impact on people’s willingness to work, especially of those on higher wages, if there is no longer a ‘haven’ where they can save their money?
  6. How could tax reform help the UK reduce its budget deficit?
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Basel III – tough new regulations, or letting banks off lightly?

Under the Basel II arrangements, banks were required to maintain particular capital adequacy ratios (CARs). These were to ensure that banks had sufficient capital to allow them to meet all demands from depositors and to cover losses if a borrower defaulted on payment. Basel II, it was (wrongly) thought would ensure that the banking system could not collapse.

There were three key ratios. The first was an overall minimum CAR of 8%, measured as Tier 1 capital plus Tier 2 capital as a percentage of total risk-weighted assets. As Economics 7th edition page 509 explains:

Tier 1 capital includes bank reserves (from retained profits) and ordinary share capital, where dividends to shareholders vary with the amount of profit the bank makes. Such capital thus places no burden on banks in times of losses as no dividend need be paid. What is more, unlike depositors, shareholders cannot ask for their money back. Tier 2 capital consists largely of preference shares. These pay a fixed rate of interest and thus do continue to place a burden on the bank even when losses are made (unless the bank goes out of business).

Risk-weighted assets are the value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. Under the internationally agreed Basel II accord, cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Inter-bank lending between the major banks has a risk factor of 0.2 and is thus included at only 20 per cent of its value; residential mortgages have a risk factor of 0.35; personal loans, credit-card debt and overdrafts have a risk factor of 1; loans to companies carry a risk factor of 0.2, 0.5, 1 or 1.5, depending on the credit rating of the company. Thus the greater the average risk factor of a bank’s assets, the greater will be the value of its risk weighted assets, and the lower will be its CAR.

The second CAR was that Tier 1 capital should be at least 4% of risk weighted assets.

The third CAR was that equity capital (i.e. money raised from the issue of ordinary shares) should be at least 2% of risk weighted assets. This is known as the ‘core capital ratio’.

Before 2008, it was thought by most commentators that these capital adequacy ratios were sufficiently high. But then the banking crisis erupted. Banks were too exposed to sub-prime debt (i.e. debt that was excessively risky, such as mortgages on property at a time when property prices were rapidly declining). Much of this debt was disguised by being bundled up with other securities in what were known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs). On 15 September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy: the largest bankruptcy in history, with Lehmans owing $613 billion. Although its assets had a book value of $639, these were insufficiently liquid to enable Lehmans to meet the demands of its creditors.

The collapse of Lehmans sent shock waves around the world. Banks across the globe came under tremendous pressure. Many held too much sub-prime debt and had insufficient capital to meet creditors’ demands. As a result, they had to be bailed out by their governments. Clearly the Basel II regulations were too lax.

For several months there have been discussions about new tighter regulations and, on 12 September 2010, central bankers from the major countries met in Basel, Switzerland, and agreed the Basel III regulations. Although the overall CAR (Tier 1 and 2) was kept at 8%, the Tier 1 ratio was raised from 4% to 6% and the core Tier 1 ratio was raised from 2% to 4.5%, to be phased in by 2015. In addition there were two ‘buffers’ introduced.

As well as having to maintain a core Tier 1 ratio of 4.5%, banks would also have to hold a ‘conservation buffer’ of 2.5%. “The purpose of the conservation buffer is to ensure that banks maintain a buffer of capital that can be used to absorb losses during periods of financial and economic stress. While banks are allowed to draw on the buffer during such periods of stress, the closer their regulatory capital ratios approach the minimum requirement, the greater the constraints on earnings distributions.” In effect, then, the core Tier 1 ratio will rise from 2% to 7% (i.e. 4.5% minimum plus a buffer of 2.5%).

The other buffer is a ‘countercyclical buffer’. This will be “within a range of 0% – 2.5% of common equity or other fully loss absorbing capital and will be implemented according to national circumstances.” The idea of this buffer is to allow banks to withstand volatility in the global economy. It will be phased in between 2016 and 2019.

The Basel III agreement will still need to be ratified by the G20 countries meeting at Seoul on 10 and 11 November this year. That meeting will also consider other elements of bank regulation.

So will these extra capital requirements be sufficient to allow banks to withstand any future crisis? The following articles discuss this question.

Global bankers agree new capital reserve rules BBC News (12/9/10)
Q&A: Basel rules on bank capital – who cares? BBC News, Laurence Knight (13/9/10)
Basel III and Sound Banking New American, Charles Scaliger (17/9/10)
Wishy-washy rules might come back to haunt regulators Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (18/9/10)
Basel III proposal released Newsweek, Joel Schectman (17/9/10)
New Bank Rules May Not Prevent More Meltdowns FXstreet, Henrik Arnt (16/9/10)
Basel III CBS Money Watch, Mark Thoma (14/9/10)
Basel III: To lend or not to lend Investment Week, Martin Morris (16/9/10)
Taming the banks The Economist (16/9/10)
Basel’s buttress The Economist (16/9/10)
Do new bank-capital requirements pose a risk to growth? The Economist, guest contributions
Myners: New rules ‘ignore bank liquidity’ BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston and Lord Myners (18/9/10)

Official press releases and documents
Group of Governors and Heads of Supervision announces higher global minimum capital standards Bank for International Settlements Press Release (12/9/10)
The Basel iii Accord Basel iii Compliance Professionals Association (BiiiCPA)
Details of the new capital requirements Bank for International Settlements
Details of the phase-in arrangements Bank for International Settlements


  1. What impact will a higher capital adequacy ratio have on banks’ behaviour?
  2. For what reasons may the Basel III regulations be considered too lax?
  3. When there is an increase in deposits into the banking sector, banks can increase loans by a multiple of this. This bank deposits multiplier is the inverse of the liquidity ratio. Is there a similar bank capital multiplier and, if so, what determines its size?
  4. Why will Basel III be phased in over a number of years? Is this too long?
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